Asking the Right Questions

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Matt. 7:7)

I believe that among the most central things in our life are the questions we ask – or even the question we ask. This is far removed from our passions and desires. We could even go so far as to say: “What is it human nature wants?” As much as anything, the answer is the very definition of human nature itself. Knowing the answer to the question, “What do I want on the very deepest level of my being?” is already a journey towards the Kingdom of God.

There was a common saying that I recall from my time in the Jesus Movement (early ’70s) that said, “There is a Jesus-shaped hole in your heart.” It posited an emptiness within our very being that could only be properly filled by a personal relationship with Christ. On the one hand, the statement is a sort of theological trivialization of something that is profoundly true. The concept of a “personal relationship” easily became little more than, “I like Jesus.” Like the many cultural fashions of which that movement was a part, it came and it went.

However, hidden within this saying was a profound insight: there is within all people (and all things) a purpose and an end towards which we are moving (or resisting). That end, according to the Fathers, is Christ Himself, the eternal Logos of God.

For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” (Col. 1:16-17)

Christ is more than a relationship that fills an empty place in our very busy, scattered lives. St. Maximos the Confessor writes about three “incarnations” of the Logos: Creation, the Scriptures, and the God/Man, Jesus Christ. The depths of this are beyond the scope of this article. However, in simple terms, we can say in the words of St. Paul that “God has purposed to gather together in one all things in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:10). That “gathering together in one” would be an exercise in oppression were it not the case that all things that were created have as their inmost purpose that very same gathering. Everything has as its purpose, its end, its logos, which is a reflection of the Logos. All of creation groans – longing for its union in Christ – its eternal purpose.

I think of Christ speaking to the wind and the sea. The disciples marveled, “Who is this that the wind and the sea obey Him?” I believe the wind and the sea were “holding their breath,” just waiting for any word from the Logos. Creation is not “fallen,” in the sense of having ever sinned. Instead, St. Paul describes it as “subject to futility,” that is, it is frustrated and unable to fulfill its final purpose at the present time. However, it yearns for it and moves towards it. The trees in your yard (and all of creation) share the same purpose as do we all – to be gathered together in one in Christ Jesus.

Perhaps the single most astounding statement in the Scriptures is St. John’s “and the Logos (Word) became flesh and dwelt among us.” Christ is the lens through which we “read” all of creation, and certainly the lens through which we read the Scriptures. St. Maximos, in speaking about these things, uses the image of “clothing” or “robes” to describe the relation of creation and Scripture to the Logos. We see the clothing, and we can make out the shape beneath it of the One who so clothes Himself. But the One who is clothed is also “hidden” by that clothing.

This is profoundly true of the Scriptures as well. A simplistic literalism fails, pretty much every time. The reason such treatments fail, I think, is that those who imagine themselves to be literalists are unaware of the “distorted logos” that guides their thought. Their own perversions and damaged hearts are drawn towards distortions. The reading of Scripture is a difficult undertaking that properly belongs under the heading of “blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” It is why we always lean on the guidance of those whose wisdom and discernment has proven its worth.

The “question” within us is not the product of our culture or an individualistic longing. Indeed, many of the things within us that we experience as “questions” are nothing more than expressions of our neuroses – the damaged and broken bits of our lives that hound us and haunt us. The journey towards the question is always one of healing, of clearing out the detritus of broken, damaged bits of our lives. In my own experience, I have mostly been aware of the “echo” of the question, a suggestion within myself that there is such a thing. On occasion, I have been staggered in reading the life of a saint, or in a passage somewhere in the Liturgy, in which that echo is more like a blaring trumpet. A very few times, that trumpet has been spoken by the lips of a stranger or a friend.

In the stories of the gospels, we see Christ confronting various people. In every case, I think, we are seeing the Logos speaking to a logos, Deep calling unto deep, Christ slowly unveiling the deepest secret of the heart. We hear it in the words of the Samaritan Woman at the well: “Come meet a man who told me every thing I ever did!” Or in the words of the Simon Peter, “Where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (Jn. 6:68)

The “change” that we might discuss as Christians is too often reduced to merely managing our neuroses. We would like to be “better” and make some marginal improvement in our daily battle with sin. It is why, for the most part, we confine our questions to the realm of information. With a bit of spiritual information here and bit there, we seek to gain enough of a handle on things to make a modicum of improvement. The change or transformation that God desires is not found in our improvement. Rather, it is our union with Him and our transformation into His image and likeness. It carries us into the very deepest question. When we pray, “O God, save me!” this is the content of our prayer.

I often think of it as, “O God, save me from myself and from all of the things I would settle for that are less than union with You.”

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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36 responses to “Asking the Right Questions”

  1. Mike N Avatar
    Mike N

    Well said Father! A timely reminder that our Lord Jesus sustains us and all things!

  2. Burt Noyes Avatar
    Burt Noyes

    Thank you Father! Reading this was just the boost I needed this morning.

  3. Merry Bauman Avatar
    Merry Bauman

    Wow. How beautifully profound and helpful ! What a great start to my day! I am seeing so many things in your post that relate so well to things going on in our lives right now. Your reminder not to “settle” for less than what we truly need in our hearts and in our spiritual growth is very timely. How easy it is to do that sometimes, instead of reaching for what Jesus wants for us and to have with us. Thank you!

  4. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Wow, I really love this Father Stephen!

  5. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    This reminded me of this verse in 1 Cor 2 “But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God.” For sometime I have wondered about this verse. The Holy Spirit–who is God–searches the deep things of God. What’s the Spirit looking for? I have speculated that the Spirit was looking for us, and that in some sense we are the deep things of God, or that the deep things of God are revealed in us. I have also wanted to connect the Spirit searching the deep things to the patterns of searching in Matthew 13: someone finding a treasure another searching for fine pearls. Fr. Stephen do you see any connections between these? And if so would you care to comment? Also, would you mind saying something about any potential connections between having the right question and the searching of the Spirit.
    Thanks in advance.

  6. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    I recall a story you once told, Father, of a Protestant who came to you and asked if you were “saved”. In the following discussion you spoke of salvation as “union with God” and said they didn’t seem to know what to do with that. This entire post screams of that to me. Fr. Ambrose recently spoke of our being transformed from the Image of God into the Likeness of God. That has stuck with me, as I’ve rarely read of anyone describing what our “transformation” actually is. Image to Likeness makes sense to me (especially in light of Christ’s saying that “he who believes in Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do” (John 14:12). After all, how does one “improve” in purity of heart?

  7. Debbie A Avatar
    Debbie A

    Simple, profound and beyond my doing or knowing….yet, such a relief to the likes of me ever mired in tortured self-improvement efforts in to gain a lesser god…

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In 1968, I was feeling down and walking across my campus I asked a simple question: “Jesus, are you real?” He answered quickly saying simply: “Yes, I am”. Along with the answer I sensed a particular presence in my heart
    The following 55 years, I have been doggedly going through the weeds and detritus to know the Person who answered “Yes, I am”

    Most of that time I was being taught how to repent and partake of His mercy. I am still learning but He is still with me as I learn. He is patient and kind dealing with my obtuse and willful soul.
    Matthew 7:14 “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

  9. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Fr. Stephen,

    A few months (or was it years?) ago you gave me 2 separate but essential pieces of wisdom in your posts concerning questions that I will never forget:

    1. What motivates a person is questions, not answers – and their particular question most of all.

    2. Don’t try to answer questions people aren’t asking.

    To me these are core components of understanding true communion and evangelization: Be there with someone, walk beside them, and help them to answer their true question if you can. That work is the cup of cold water given in His name.

    Thank you so much, sir.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    I think there’s a conncection. Certainly, the truth of who we are is a treasure hidden in a field known by the deep things of god.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Byron,
    Vladimir Lossky, as I recall, does a fair amount with the distinction between image and likeness.

  12. Joy Avatar
    Joy

    “O GOD, SAVE ME FROM MYSELF AND FROM ALL THE THINGS I WOULD SETTLE FOR THAT ARE LESS THAN UNION WITH YOU.”
    It’s on my frig.

  13. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Amen Father and Joy!

  14. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father one thing I love about this post is that you have really captured what “telos” is, and the sense that it is a fulfillment. So teleology should give us this same idea.

    But also I think the notion that we truly find ourselves in Christ (for I find I cannot help but as who I am as well, because that is the answer in the same place I’m supposed to go) seems to call out for a different orientation toward sin than the horrible awful loathsome person I must be for my sin. I have a problem with this, because we are all imperfect, we all miss the mark. And as I think you might have indicated in your work on shame, how does that attitude really help me repent? How does it really work automatically to theosis? I don’t think it does. And moreover, it doesn’t distinguish between the things God might ask me to address today and the things God doesn’t ask me today because they’re too far for me, and have to wait until I make some progress first.

    It just seems to me that with theosis as the background reality, there is a different thing going on here than so much emphasis on identity with our sin. We need motivation to understand that the road forward is toward Christ. I don’t know what could work for others, but for me it’s just God’s love that is so patient and that gives me what I need to do today for conversion/repentance/metanoia.

    I think I’m not expressing myself so well but I bet you know (probably better than I do) what I am trying to talk about. And we might all be at different place, but it’s important that we are all in the same boat essentially. None of us has hit the fullness of that mark. I think the great negative emphasis leads too often for people to have to declare they are perfect instead of just accepting that this is what life is. We are meant to work on it, to become like Him in God’s energies and transfigure as we can . Okay off my soapbox now. I mean, I do believe there are people (and I know them) who just don’t want to hear it. But I don’t think even that should necessarily concern me unless it seems to me God is drawing me to do something about that besides just try to do what I’m supposed to do.

    What do you think? What am I missing?

  15. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    This excellent post brought this passage to mind:

    Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, “You are gods”‘? If He called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?

    Jesus asks two questions here but seems to be making a single point. St. Maximus expounds this point too, I think, in his teaching on Incarnation. Some call it the Whole Mystery of Christ. To me, this passage shines with almost unbearable brightness within the context St. John gives it: Jesus declares, I and the Father are one; they nearly stone him for it; then he poses these questions in response. If our healing is the realization of who we truly are, then these questions of Jesus provide the implicit answer. Union with God — eternal life — is the crux of the gospel.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Janine,
    I’m not sure I understand your question.

    Perhaps this referenced article will help.

  17. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Janine, if I understand you correctly, there is a certain thought (to me) that goes with “God is gathering all things to Himself”. It is that God is doing it, even against our will(s). But how are we to understand His doing when He does not force Himself upon us? He does not oppress us in a forceful manner?

    I think the answer, perhaps, is better illustrated in a dance to a song–a teacher teaching their student. The movements are not unnatural for the student (indeed they are more natural than the mistaken movements we make in life all the time) and the teacher is not jerking the dancer around the floor, but instead guiding them into perfection. When the student insists upon following “unnatural” movements, they damage themselves. But the teacher continues in His guidance, coaxing them to correct the issues. So there’s not really “progress” (although that language may always be used, I suppose), but more of a return to a natural expression or movement within the song. Just my thoughts. Forgive me if I’ve completely missed your question.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bryon, I really like your analogy. My late mother and her sister were both highly skilled performers in contemporary dance. Your description is correct. The classes all began with warm up and repetition of basic technique. So many memories. I was never any good but she never let me know that
    She worked in dance therapy once with a severely autistic young man By observation of how he moved naturally, she took those movements and structured them into dance. His ability to communicate and to work through frustration increased markedly.
    But, unlike God, she could not be with him enough.

    God is with us!

  19. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    “it is God who works in you BOTH to will and to do for His good pleasure.”

    Fr. correct me where I am wrong. I think that the idea of free-will needs some serious reconsideration. I understand that there is a common sense belief that “freedom” is associated with personhood such that If there is no freedom then there is no personhood. (Automatons are not persons.) However, a fetus has no freedom, but we would still regard it as a human person if only as a human person in development. And I think that is the key. For us freedom isn’t something we “have”, but something that is “under development.” The fact that the verse says that God works in us both to will and to act tells us that freedom is God a gift of grace from God to creation. Freedom and theosis go hand in hand. The fact that there is any freedom at all indicates that the universe and everything in it is being prepared for theosis. I say that like I know it’s true, but I don’t. It’s just what makes sense to me when I think about it.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Simon,
    No doubt, there are far more issues surrounding our will than popular treatments and thoughts ever consider. That God is working within us “both to will and do of His good pleasure” is not a limit of our freedom, but an affirmation of our nature (which is not just some inert thing – but a drive and an impetus towards union with God). Most popular treatments have come to their present state of over-simplicity in the context of a culture that has a make-believe account of human freedom, most of which is geared to make us into compliant consumers (while our “freedom” is manipulated through the media).

  21. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father,
    I greatly appreciate what you wrote about our nature being a drive and an impetus towards union with God. Without seeking to dissolve the mystery, I wonder, could we say that God’s nature is a drive and an impetus towards union with Himself? (Love being the main ingredient.) If so, a literal reading of John 10:34 seems to be justified.
    Many kind thanks.

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Freedom in our world means no restrictions on one’s passions which includes the consume demand and all perversions sexual and others.
    To return to the dance metaphor: students at first are primarily taught technique and postures that they must learn. The greatest masters of dance always return to that technique in every session as warm up and reminder. Students do a similar thing but their ability to use the technique creatively is limited. Even self-taught dancers as many cloggers and tap dancers are have technique they rely on that is the foundation.
    One also learns what one’s limitations are.
    I thank you again Bryon for the dance metaphor.

  23. juliania Avatar
    juliania

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for this beautiful teaching. It has helped me as I was reading into Saint Paul’s epistle to the Romans. I mean, where you say that Saint Maximos sees creation and Scripture as the ‘clothing’ of Christ — I could see Paul supposing what might be the purpose for those of his brethren remaining as Jews very much as Joseph says about his imprisonment in Egypt: that it seemed a bad thing, but God had a purpose which would be revealed all in good time. And so he, Paul, hopes for his brethren, even the hardhearted ones.
    It’s very relevant today, when we see so many of our brethren caught in a similar hardheartedness trap about this or that, (at least as it seems to us).

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, on page 139 of your new book you say,
    The spiritual journey is not a product
    of modern psychology, or a path of
    becoming ‘well adjusted’. It is a journey
    It is a journey toward a Reality that is
    formed and shaped by God.

    You also link the journey with humility. Humility is difficult for we moderns have difficulty with. We tend to look at it as subjection.

    Is it not, in reality, recognizing, each of us, recognizing how we are made and who makes us and learning to agree?

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    Or, not “how we are made,” but “how we actually are,” and being able to move forward with that. It is to “bear a little shame.” But, given that it is painful, it is easy to understand that many find it difficult. It is not just moderns. Pain is difficult even for the ancients.

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I see your point and your statement is a better way of saying what I meant. Thank you.
    As far as shame goes when 2 Chronicles 7:14 comes to mind:
    “If the people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

    Am I wrong in thinking that the heart of this passage is quite similar to what you are saying or are you looking even more deeply?

    Is not bearing one’s shame a bit like grabbing the end of a rope and one does not know where the other end is? Only a daring trust in God allows one to go to the other end?

  27. Margaret Avatar
    Margaret

    Ruthless Trust in Our Good God Who Loves Mankind

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bryon, I do not know if you remember Snoopy from Peanuts or not: “To dance is to live, to live is to dance!”

  29. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Definitely, Michael! I still consider Peanuts to be one of the greatest comic strips of all time! I remember a comic illustrator (who is very good, actually) saying he never found Peanuts to be funny. I sit and think, “But it’s SO gentle and kind!” (and I always found it funny too)!

  30. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    “Ruthless Trust” would someone please elaborate.

  31. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi Simon,

    I’m not familiar with the term but Googling indicates that it likely originated with “Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God,” by Brennan Manning.

    [Quoting]
    In the context of Manning’s book, “ruthless trust” primarily refers to the relationship between an individual and a higher power, such as God. It suggests placing complete trust and confidence in that higher power, even in the face of life’s difficulties, hardships, and unanswered questions. It entails letting go of control, surrendering to the unknown, and believing that ultimately, things will work out for the best.

    The term “ruthless” in this context does not imply cruelty or malice but rather emphasizes the need to be unyielding and uncompromising in one’s trust. It encourages individuals to abandon their own limited understanding and to trust in a higher wisdom or plan, even when circumstances may seem challenging or unjust.

    In essence, “ruthless trust” represents a profound level of faith, surrender, and acceptance. It encourages individuals to let go of their need for control and security, embracing vulnerability and uncertainty, and relying on a deeper trust that surpasses rational explanation. It is a mindset that seeks to find peace and meaning in the midst of life’s complexities by leaning on a force or power greater than oneself.
    [End quote]

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mark, sounds like the principles of unseen warfare: don’t trust oneself but have a daring trust in God.

  33. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Thank you, Mark. That is really helpful. I like the term ‘ruthless trust.’ It’s kind of inspiring.

  34. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Dear everybody, thank you for this conversation and the replies to my post.

    Yes, Father, I think your article that you linked really hit the nail on the head in terms of some of the things I was posting about (of course, better than I did) and so — as I thought possible (haha), you discerned more clearly than I did something I was reaching for!

    Byron, you read something beautiful into what I was writing and took it to a beautiful metaphor. I thank you for that dance metaphor too. I wasn’t really getting at what you “saw” there, but really that is a beautiful way to phrase theosis I think.

    Michael I agree with you about the dance metaphor. You reminded me that I once read that for the beginning dance scene in the opening of the movie Jailhouse Rock, the choreographer had Elvis Presley simply do some of the natural (to him) moves he did on stage while performing, and then choreographed around those moves. The result is still a stunning memorable piece on film!

    All of this is I think getting back to what I tried to say, and I also read in Father’s newest post today, I think. Theosis gives one more the sense of a love waiting at the other end, rather than condemnation. It also helps us to understand that we’re on a road, and this is not a one-time deal, get perfect tomorrow. Like Father has said in the other piece (I think) that he linked for me, it’s no wonder people think they have to declare themselves perfect as they are.

    I don’t know if everybody can be saved. I’m not sure everybody is supposed to be saved. But all I know is that me being saved is just about trying to find what God wants from me (this moment, today) and if that helps others well that is a blessing indeed.

    Regarding “ruthless trust.” I cannot speak for Margaret. But to my mind she’s saying we need the kind of trust (in God’s love) that doesn’t stop at anything.

  35. Alan Avatar
    Alan

    Thank you Father.
    Love your point about the goal being union with Him and transformation into His image and Likeness, as opposed to simply trying to be “better.” You’ve written that previously but I always need to be reminded.

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